Is the ballad still valid?
Even in the half-light of the Palace Bar at the Horton Grand Hotel in San Diego's muted Gaslamp District, I can see nothing but mock seriousness in Charles McPherson's movie-star face as he puts the question to a hushed Friday-night crowd.
This is a room the Charles McPherson Quartet works twice a year. They did it this year in January, and again in August. And, hey, they're holding this crowd in the palms of their professional hands quite as though we were baby chicks, barely hatched from our shells. Radiance probably isn't the word for what McPherson emits, but in a pinch it will do.
With more than 35 recorded years behind him, Charles McPherson — suave, mustachioed, resplendent in a suit the lavender of a San Diego twilight — remains, at 55, a youthful master of those world-weary idioms we still call blues, still call jazz, still call bebop.
In Holland, his favorite country to play (“I love the way they respond”), McPherson is a hero. In fact, he’s lionized throughout Europe, throughout Japan (“The Japanese love jazz, but they aren’t demonstrative”), and among what he calls “that 2 percent of Americans who actively and actually like jazz and support it.”
Charles first heard the music in Joplin, Missouri, where, like Lester Young and others before him, he was knocked out by the music of itinerant bands, so-called “territory bands,” probably from Kansas City.
“This is 1945,” he told me, “something like that. And, of course, there’d be a big dance. There were sections of the park where black people could go. This is when I first saw instruments en masse, and it’s where I first saw the alto saxophone.”
Charles listened intently to those touring bands. “They would take their breaks and leave their instruments on the chairs. I saw these gold, shiny trumpets and saxophones. And visually, this just knocked me out! I mean, the color and the shape of ’em. I don’t know, maybe it was some primeval instinct. But when I looked at them, it was the shape that mesmerized me — the color, the pearl keys, the whole bit. And then the sound! I was four or five years old. I wanted to play music then.
“I got to Detroit at 9. I didn’t really play until I got in junior high school. I was about 12 before I started playing trumpet. They didn’t have any saxophones; they were all out. Everybody wanted to play saxophone. I joined the band immediately. There were no saxophone players. They were either out (of saxophones], or they were already taken. So anyway, that’s when I started playing flugelhorn for a year. My mother said she was gonna get me (a saxophone]. I got it on my 13th birthday.” Charles McPherson seems so much at home in front of a microphone, with or without sax, that I still can’t help thinking what a fine actor he would’ve made — and still might.
After all, it was Charles McPherson who played Billie Holiday’s saxophonist in the Old Globe Theatre production of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill. And it is pure Charles McPherson you hear pouring out of that alto saxophone Forest Whitaker fingered and mouthed in Bird, the 1988 film Clint Eastwood directed. It was saxophonist Lennie Niehaus, a prominent studio figure on the West Coast jazz scene of the ’50s, who produced the album and supervised its music.
In the same way that Natalie Cole was able to team up with her late father, Nat “King” Cole, to produce Unforgettable, the studio assemblage of five-star bopsters (including McPherson, pianists Barry Harris and Monte Alexander, trumpeter Jon Faddis, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer John Guerin) were able to “sit in” electronically with the late Charlie Parker, pianist Walter Davis, Jr., and other bop greats. The controversial sound and mix of it thrilled, vexed, and astonished many filmgoers with ears, but not me, not the Kid.
While I wasn’t crazy about Bird, I loved the sound McPherson created. It was his unmistakable singing sound I had been following for 40 years, going all the way back to Detroit, high school days. Charles and I grew up there in pre-Motown days, when Detroit was commonly known as Big D. In fact, we were born just 90 days apart — I in coastal Mississippi, Charles in Joplin, Missouri, July 24, 1939.
“No, I mean it,” Charles is telling us on-mike, continuing his intro. I ponder how the spoken intro in jazz, in itself, has become a form of art. “In our time,” he asks, “in this culture — is a ballad still valid?”
Now Charles has me pondering that one, too. At this end of the 20th Century, what does a ballad mean to compact disk and concert ticket buyers reared on the Butthole Surfers, Metallica, Madonna, Salt-n-Pepa, Sir Mix-a-lot, Anthrax, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Ice Cube, the Black Crowes, or Too Short? That goes for any ballad, but especially those old standards that make up so much of jazz and classic pop’s elegant repertoire.
For example, Tony Bennett, whose concerts are now underwritten by Microsoft, is said to have become the darling of post-yuppie concertgoers; they can’t get enough of Tony singing Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Sigmund Romberg, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhom, Johnny Mercer, Matt Dennis, Jimmy Van Heusen, or Antonio Carlos Jobim. But now Charles McPherson has me rubbing my chin in the half-dark of the Palace Bar, wondering what all this means.
Right within earshot, though, in this sound-jammed, rhythm-wrapped eternal now of a Friday night, Charles is slowly counting off the tempo of “My Funny Valentine” to his band — pianist Greg Kursten, bassist Jeff Littleton, and drummer Chuck McPherson (Charles McPherson Jr.). I slip off into that steamy deep-end, that tingling, deep-night inner glow that jazz balladry induces.
I’d even go so far as to say that the mood this slow ballad has set finely matches what Billie Holiday — already 40 years gone, yet still one of the biggest-selling jazz artists on earth — sensuously and regularly evoked in her person-to-person ways of reliving while delivering whatever she sang. Like Billie, Charles McPherson lessens the distance between the so-called listener and the so-called performer.
And, again like Billie, when Charles delivers the Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart ballad “My Funny Valentine,” the perennial heartbreaker, he seems to be not so much an interpreter of the song as its listening catalyst. That is, he puts the song over so completely and with such finesse that once the song chooses the way it wants to go, he virtually vanishes. Charles, like all working catalysts, is then free to melt. And where does he go? Charles dissolves into what’s being played, quite as though he himself were being alchemized by his own playing, the blue-hot, red-hot molten metal of his supple virtuosity mutating into a golden, listening presence.
“I have more of an understanding of how music relates to emotionality,” Charles once told jazz writer Alan Reder. “And I’ve learned to use the qualities of a thespian to make the music more animated.”
Charles McPherson’s exuberance cuts clean through skin and bone on its way to the heart. His music can touch you, and deeply. What we’re really talking about here is spirit; there is a spiritual lilt to almost everything that comes out of his alto saxophone during a performance.
Lyricist-essayist Gene Lees, writing about Frank Sinatra in his 1987 book. Singers and the Song, had this to say:
Almost all our stories and songs are about love, the highest exaltation we know excepting that achieved by some people through religion, and even then the terminology of romantic love is often used in the effort to describe the experience. Frank Sinatra sang the American love song with an overwhelming persuasive immediacy. Julius La Rosa says, “He was able to turn a 30-bar song into a three-act play."
What people forget — even some musicians — is that jazz players traditionally listened to every kind of music, not just jazz. Jazz pundit Nat Hentoff didn’t want to believe it when Miles Davis, way back in the ’70s, told him he spent more time listening to rock and soul music than to jazz. Isn’t it similar to poets who only read other poets? Where does life or anything else new wander into the picture?
Drummer Art Blakey and others were fond of pointing out how Charlie Parker himself would often stop in his tracks when he passed, say, a country-western bar and heard some good music pouring out of it. Joyana Brookmeyer, a Northern Californian and one of Charles McPherson’s longtime friends, was a babysitter for Bird and Chan Parker’s little kids when the Parkers lived in Greenwich Village during the early 1950s. Joyana recalls the day when she, pregnant and newly married, paid a spontaneous visit with husband Frank to tell him they were on their sudden honeymoon.
“Frank said,” according to Joyana, “ ‘Let’s go over to Avenue B and see if Chan and Bird are home.’ So we just walked over there. We walked in, and Chan wasn’t home. But Bird was home, and it was real dark, and Bird has got his feet up — he’s wearing blue jeans and cowboy boots, a checkered flannel cowboy-style shirt, and he’s got his feet up on the table, and he’s listening to this Frank Sinatra album. So we sat down, and we listened. We were kind of listening to Sinatra with Bird, you know, and digging on Sinatra, and it was very interesting, very interesting. It was very exciting because I could never listen to Frank Sinatra or any singer.”
The point is this: Charles McPherson plays horn as though he were singing. During the earliest period of his development, the early 1950s, when we were both in our mid-teens, Charles, even then, played with palpable, vocable feeling.
From the time I first heard him perform— abit nervously, as I remember—at Detroit’s World Stage, with trumpeter Lonnie Hillyer and pianist Barry Harris, a teacher to them both — I became aware that Charles was never the kind of player who could just cold-bloodedly play a gig. Not to my ears, which could always hear and sense his commitment, the depths from which his playing traveled.
There is and there has always been a philosophy behind what Charles plays. “The metaphysical effect of sound on the universe” is something he speaks of with pleasure, with faith.
And this night at the Horton Grand is no different. I can hear a whole way of life compacted into the very way Charles sounds notes. It’s inseparable from his approach to notes, the thoughtful silence with which he surrounds them.
Actors know that listeners can tell whether you’re smiling or frowning by the sound of your voice, even if you’re, say, on the radio and they can’t actually see you. Scientists know about that deep part of your brain, the part that also controls facial expressions, that connects with vocalized emotions. The best musicians are also actors, scientists, poets, philosophers, rascals, politicians— the works.
Disappearing into the music, I think of Lester Young’s remarks about the importance of lyrics. Lester wondered how in the world you could play a ballad when you didn’t know the lyrics. How can they know what you’re playing about? And Lester Young evidently knew the lyrics to hundreds of songs. You can still hear how Dexter Gordon, on his later live recordings, often approaches a ballad — say, Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” — by speaking the opening lyric into the mike in that low, grit-and-smoke-sanded voice of his. “A country dance/ was being held in a garden./ I felt a bump and heard/ an ‘Oh, beg your pardon.’/
Suddenly I see polka dots and moonbeams/ all around a pug-nosed dream.”
By now, Charles has reached the bridge to “My Funny Valentine,” where the words go, “Is your figure less than Greek?/ Is your mouth a little weak?”
And out of the San Diego night, perhaps from the good mood I’ve left hanging in mid-air in my room in a hotel in Little Italy, where the train whooo-whooos me back to sleep in the amazing mornings and nights, where I spend my spare wee hours writing poetry, I hear the words of ballads coming from all directions of my little life. The words cram and blur together the way the colored-chalk sidewalk drawings of children used to blur when it rained.
Watercolors; elegant music-washed valentines—one after another — pour from Charles’s horn. What does he think about while he recomposes this evergreen? Does he think about his lovely wife Lynn? Lynn Sundfor McPherson, a professional classical pianist and mother of their two-year-old daughter Camille?
And Camille herself? What is on her tender, precocious mind when she hears her daddy or mommy play the music to which they’ve devoted their lives? The afternoon of our interview, while Charles was being photographed and I sat in the living room of the McPhersons’ lively, comfy home in North Park, Camille sat at the beautiful big grand piano, a Kawai, and announced, “Now, Al, I’m going to play for you.” Al smiles, yet serious, professional, Camille bent over the shiny keyboard and, curving her little fingers, picked out notes randomly, but with a flourish and a feeling that let me know she had definitely been paying attention to what went on around that family. I mean, Camille played with both hands, faking runs, arpeggios, chords — the works! And when I applauded, there was no way to tell this little girl, “You make me smile with my heart....”
“I haven’t been around too many kids her age,” Lynn McPherson told me later. “But (Camille just said her whole ABCs all the way through. This is a pretty smart kid. I hope she becomes a great cellist, myself, but, you know, she’s going to start with the piano and —”
“You’ve got the instruments all selected?” I said.
“Well, as soon as she says, ‘This is not what I want to do,’ we’ll go ahead and let her do what she wants to do. But I think the piano’s really a great instrument to sit down and make it sound. It’s a map of everything right in front of you. All the harmony is right there. You’ve got the whole orchestra at your fingertips.”
And right there at my fingertips just then, that night, listening in the glistening dark, all the lines to all the luscious slow jams came cramming together inside my happy head like all the notes pressed down at once on some baffled, overwhelmed piano someplace close by —
Your looks are laughable unphotographable but there will never be another you in the wee small hours of the morning round about midnight you go to my head like the bubbles in a glass of champagne you are the promised kiss of springtime that makes the lonely winter seem long I’m all for you body and soul willow weep for me I took a trip on a train and I thought about you I bought you violets for your furs you should have told me so them that’s got shall get them that don't shall lose so the Bible says and it still is news I’m a fool to want you you must remember this a kiss is just a kiss some get a kick from cocaine I’m sure that if I took even one sniff it would bore me terrifically just one look at you my heart grows tipsy in me you and you alone bring out the gypsy in me I’m in the mood for love simply because you’re near me where troubles melt like lemon drops away above the chimney tops everything seems to bring memories of you someday we’ll meet and you’ll dry all my tears and whisper sweet little things in my ears loverman oh where can you be I used to visit all the very gay places those come-what-may places where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life to get the feel of life from jazz and cocktails I remember too a distant bell and stars that fell like rain out of the blue you’d be so nice to come home to under stars chilled by the winter under an August moon burning above if you asked me I could write a book my romance doesn’t need a castle rising in Spain someday there’ll be no more Old Folks what a lonely old world this will be the fundamental loneliness goes whenever two can dream a dream together....
SILENT QUESTIONS, QUIET QUESTS
Am I the only listener who thinks the test of a good jazz player is not his or her ability to play rapid tempos, but to play ballads?
Charles McPherson, like Charlie Parker, is first and last a melodist. This love of melody tells most when he plays doubletime, that is, doubles up on the tempo. Lesser players would turn double-time spurts into technical, calisthenic, showoff events that call for listeners to think, “Whoa, can this sucker still blow or what?” But not Charles. He only uses this tried-and-tested improvisational device to emphasize some overlooked or “underheard” facet of a song or to bring out some nuance of emotion — read: meaning — that his inner ears, deepened by inner-listening and refined with time, can hear.
That the Palace Bar was once a house of ill-repute running all the way back to 1896 (jazz flutist Holly Hofmann, seated close by, drops this bit of history on me) is supposedly at least hinted at, if not flat-out depicted, by painted nudes on walls, by the lavish staircase and, for all I know, by the class-A jazz we’re packed in there to hear.
Is such a detail still titillating to jazz buffs and nightclub toughs who need to cling to the legend of the music’s unrespectable origins in New Orleans’s Storyville, a red-light district, almost 100 years ago? In Argentina, the tango followed a similarly racy rise from low dives to international respectability. Both in New Orleans and Buenos Aires, upright citizens, thrill-seeking by taxi, frequented such joints, tacky or pretentious alike, where music and dance — for in all its mighty, vitalizing, toe-tapping slum-eloquence — was customarily regarded as an adjunct to the sale of booty and booze.
As veteran saxophonist Archie Shepp once put it, “People came to those places expecting to hear nigger music, but what they were hearing was American music. Yes, American music.”
Storyville, the Crescent City’s tenderloin district (named after Alderman Sidney Story), flourished for a mere 20 years, from 1897 to 1917. How long will the story go on, though?
The Charles McPherson Quartet ignited the night with “Blue ’n’ Boogie,” a brisk and ancient tune, one of Bird and Dizzy Gillespie’s earliest recorded collaborations — a tune modeled directly, like countless jazz vehicles, on the blues. Isn’t Charles McPherson, as he speaks through his instrument, nothing less than a masterful dialectician of the blues?
Even though his lusterless horn looks as though it’s led quite a life of its own, Charles blows it mellifluously. Everything he plays is blues-drenched, and it’s always lyrical, Bird-like. But while his language, musically speaking, was Charlie Parker, Charles has shaped it to his own personality and emotional needs. Yes, he’s listened to and digested all the Parkerisms, the whole Bird, his soft and hard sides; sauteed or deep-fried, baked or barbecued, tender or tough.
By ten o’clock of that Friday night, when a lively dinner-and-drinks crowd, perky and yacky, was gathering in the bar, I had watched Charles scrutinize the bandstand, making last-minute adjustments, joshing and conferring with Chuck, who was setting up. Was I the only one who could feel the humor in his blood, coursing right there under the skin of consciousness and always ready to make a splash but usually content to come out in dry, wry, gritty understatement?
Charles, like a good bebopper, holds that humor in check. It could be that he not so much holds it in check as holds it back, perhaps to use it as an artful surprise in private conversation or when he’s on the bandstand, putting his special spin on spoken intros. Did Charles’s old boss Charles Mingus influence his style of grabbing and holding an audience’s attention verbally?
Before the set began, when I had spoken with Chuck McPherson, who, at a football-player-sized 6 feet 4, towers over his father, I picked up Chuck’s sense of humor right away and noticed how different it was from his dad’s. Chuck told me the thing that bugs him most about being a drummer.
“Settin’ ’em up is a workout,” he said. “And breakin’ ’em down is the hardest part.” This made me remember jazz great Lester Young, who had started out as a drummer but gave it up because by the time he had gotten his drums disassembled after a gig, all the piano players and clarinet players and trumpeters and other horn players had gone off with all the women. To hear Lester tell it, he had no choice but to switch from drums to reeds.
Charles’s sound is Bird-like, and I’ve never forgotten that Charles “Yardbird” Parker “graduated from Lester Young University,” as Bird himself put it. As jazz professors and lecturers might say, both the Lestorian and the Parkerian styles are marked by heavy arpeggiation. That is, the notes he plays are spread out, sounded in succession; from bottom to top, from top to bottom of the given chord that’s sparked them.
And Charles’s musical frame of reference — while he’s extemporizing, while he’s building on the chords and the moment and the ever-shifting mood of the room, searching perhaps for answers-in-progress to private questions — is encyclopedic.
Listening to any top-flight jazz performer reminds me of the way babies are said to learn to talk. They begin by adopting the vocal mannerisms and inflections of their parents. Charles, you find out quickly and clearly when you listen, has heard and digested everything that Charlie Parker ever said. And this has formed McPherson’s basic lexicon, which he has shaped to his own personality — musically, viscerally, attitudinally.
Charles riffs continuously. He plays little repetitious figures that are tunes in themselves, and always with reference to items in that primal bebop lexicon. In his solos, I hear quotes from Parker’s tune “Blues for Alice” and Tadd Dameron’s “Hothouse,” which is based on Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?"
What is this thing called jazz-lover? Is it possible to explain the kinds of things that zigzag like lightning across skies of my own blue mind while I plug in to this stuff?
Would you believe, for instance, I’m still dazzled by the bebop practice of imposing new chord progressions or harmonic changes over standard tunes? Musicians did this partly to keep from paying royalties to the composers, because the small record labels simply couldn’t afford it, and partly as an example of how show biz and art music meshed. You could play the tunes that people wanted to hear but surprise them with a different melody line.
“Max Roach told me to get a black drum set,” Chuck McPherson told me. “It’s classic. He told me I’d look good on any gig I played. And he was right.”
“I love Max,” I said. “He was hilarious. He told me Bird stories like you wouldn’t believe. He said, ‘Al, I’m going to tell you some good Bird stories, but not the best Bird stories. I’m saving the best ones for my book. But the Charlie Parker stories I’ll tell you are gonna be so good, you won’t even know they aren’t the best.’ ” “Yeah,” said Chuck, “that sounds like Max.”
It was Max Roach who once told me about the 1942 New York race riots, which coincided with the famous recording ban called by American Federation of Musicians president James Petrillo. That was the very time that bebop was being born, thus much of bop’s early development went unrecorded. But after that race riot in New York, black jazz musicians began to get gigs in midtown Manhattan. According to Max, who was on the scene, this midtown crowd would often ask the uptown jazz players to do show tunes.
At one table. Max explained to me, you’d have a couple or a whole party of people who just got out of some Broadway show. They would ask for a tune from one of those shows. Charlie Parker’s way of responding to this would be to give them the tune, but he would not state the melody. Plus, he would substitute chords and alter the harmonies.
Years from now, I wondered, will bebop become fixed, perhaps like baroque? In 100 years or in just the next century, will there be pro-bebop societies just as we now have pro-musica baroque societies performing the music of this period with ever-fresh approaches? And the term baroque, borrowed from architecture, didn’t mean the same thing in the 17th Century and the first half of the 18th as it does in what remains of the 20th. Back then, if you labeled something baroque, you meant to give the idea that the thing was peculiar, rough-hewn, uncouth and, in terms of taste, dated.
Will bebop ever seem dated?
Charles’s bass player, Jeffrey Littleton, who is always working, often with vocalist Nancy Wilson, seems totally confident, as though he were incarnated on this planet to be a jazz musician. He has that world-weary aspect as he performs, but underneath, excitement continuously percolates and expresses itself in his accompaniment — partner-like encouragement and suggestions. Even his silences are resoundingly precise and poetic. To me Littleton is “bass-ish.” Isn’t that a strange thing to have to say? But maybe not so strange when you remember that multitudes of bass players over the last 25 years have approached the bass as though it were some sort of oversized guitar. Virtuosos, virtuosi — every last one; they play melody and chords simultaneously.
Littleton sits on a stool while he plays, and he gives the appearance of being thoroughly conscientious and at one with what others are doing while he expresses himself. Not content to be compelling, he propels everyone else. Jeff Littleton is a bassist in the old-fashioned sense; with him in your band, you are definitely grounded — and in earth that is fertile, alluvial, and deep.
“Manhattan Nocturne” is a Charles McPherson original. Charles might not describe it as a tone picture, but I would. But here’s the verbal picture he sketched for us by way of introduction. “It’s New York, Manhattan, with a light drizzle coming down. And it’s somewhere between four and six o’clock, when things are actually cooling out.” That information put me in the picture, the me of more than 30 years ago, when I was trying to break away from Detroit, was trying New York, and seemed to fear that if I fell asleep for too long, I might miss something.
The band jumps romantic on this creation of Charles’s. And when I say “romantic,” I mean that the lilting, mid-range melody line gets voiced in unison by piano and alto saxophone, reminiscent of the late Lennie Tristano, who was lyrically avant-garde and who influenced some of Charles Mingus. Gently self-conscious, yet more than just artful, that melody lingers, resounds in my head long after the band stops playing it. And just under the surface I can hear — or at least imagine I hear — something completely rhapsodic.
It’s clear, too, that the original material Charles writes for the band doesn’t only challenge his players, but him as well. The whole band seems fond of running “Manhattan Nocturne”’s poignant changes. In their faces I see traces and flashes of freedom. And following a carefully orchestrated fade, all four of them sonically withdraw into the ice-tinkling hush and clink of the Palace Bar. But for one silly moment, the leaked-in sound of a passing auto outside adds that needed Manhattan touch. Mesmerized, I hang onto the quartet’s plucked and barely audible, brushy, breathy whispers, recalling how accustomed we’ve become to having live bands imitate recording studio fade-outs.
Then, wham, they rush right smack into Charlie Parker’s athletic bop blues tune “Billie’s Bounce.” Because of how the title name has come to be misspelled, everyone thinks this was fashioned for Billie Holiday. But Parker wrote it for Billy Shaw, who managed and booked him and Dizzy Gillespie in the early ’40s. They wrote another tune for Billy Shaw, the breakneck, acrobatic, high-velocity “Shaw ’Nuff.” Anytime I hear a band work out on this number,
I float straight back to Central High, Detroit, the track upstairs that encircled the gym Coach Meyers commanded, where I, the spindliest of sprinters, ran the 220 and the 440 in not exactly nothing-flat, but fast, fast! — for the ’50s, that is. I weighed 120 pounds if I was an ounce — hey, “Billie’s Bounce.”
Pianist Greg Kursten takes off in the lead of straight-ahead soloists, and suddenly we’re headed into what squealing, belching, screeching, farting, hurry-up loft musicians of the ’60s and ’70s used to call solid state. Once, back then, I told Ishmael Reed the story Nathaniel Mackey had related about seeing tenor man Pharoah Sanders, presumably beside himself in the heat of passionate jazz experiment, thawing out a heated solo at Slug’s Saloon, Manhattan. In the middle of groaning out a prolonged orgasmic
squawk on his horn, Pharoah eased back the sleeve of his vividly tie-dyed dashiki and sneaked a quick look at his watch. Ishmael’s immediate response to this account was, “Well, I don’t know how I’d feel about myself if I had to make my living thrashing around for liberals.”
Perhaps because he has never found so-called free jazz alluring, Charles has never made more than peripheral use of what have become stock-in-trade “avant-garde” licks and gimmicks. “Mingus kind of encouraged people to play that way sometimes,” he told me. “And Mingus himself played that way — a lot. But playing crazy, that isn’t my language.”
The body language of all four players is curious to note. Perhaps a word is in order about body language and jazz, the way Horace Silver hunches over the piano, for example. Most people don’t know that this mannerism isn’t a studied stance that Silver affects. Rather, the great leader and composer suffers from scoliosis. In a sense, Horace Silver has made that curvature of the spine into something hip, what hipsters used to do so masterfully. Well, right now Greg Kursten looks quite Silveresque, hunched over the keyboard, punching out chords.
Charles seems thrilled and fluent. You hear smears and blurs as he runs through his exhilarating phrasings. It reminds me of what Ishmael Reed once referred to as the feminine Bird. To Ishmael’s ear, Charlie Parker had a masculine side that was somewhat gruff and hard-hitting. But Bird also expressed a decidedly softer approach that was song-like and high-pitched. He described it as feminine. Mind you, Reed voiced this perception decades ago.
Chuck McPherson deals continuously in what the New Yorker's Whitney Balliett used to call “the sound of surprise." Jazz audiences seem to veer off in two distinct directions where jazz drummers are concerned. There are those who leave the room to take their cigarette or restroom breaks while the drummer is soloing, and those who choose that time to lean forward and pay close attention.
The band is more than quite warmed up; in fact, it’s beginning to smolder. As they head into Johnny Green’s “Out of Nowhere,” Charles offers his wry intro, “Does one come from out of nowhere or out of somewhere?”
Next comes a slow blues.
Kursten is definitely “tickling the ivories” now, teasing us with the blues in that good old style Jay McShann would’ve been enriching in Kansas City when Charlie Parker was a kid making the rounds. Each time Greg looks up at the end of a chorus, expecting Charles to step in and take over soloing, Charles tells him to take another chorus.
In fact, Charles pushes this skit to laugh-provoking limits. It’s as if he were orchestrating a come-on, a lure. I think about how Jelly Roll Morton’s original idea was not to become the great pianist and composer (“I invented Jazz,” he used to claim, and scholars no longer scoff). He wanted to become a world-class pool shark. He used the piano as a decoy to lure people into shooting pool with him and making bets.
Charles pretends he’s going to come in. He even steps up to the microphone, puts the saxophone to his lips, but then steps back and allows Greg to go on playing, and on each chorus Greg is hotter and hotter, increasingly emotional, chorus after chorus. Finally, Greg abandons the single-line melodic soloing and goes into block chords for a few measures and sustains it with a note trill. This is the big dramatic buildup. Then Charles curtails it all when he steps in with a quotation from saxophonist James Moody’s “Last Train to Overbrook,” a tune about Moody being released from Overbrook Hospital, where he had gone for an alcoholism cure. And Charles, after he hits the last phrase of that quotation, holds that note with circular breathing, breathing from his lungs and circulating the air through his cheeks in such a way that he continues this big trill-like buildup that Greg Kursten set in motion. Like the set itself, the song isn’t over until it’s over.
WHAT JAZZ IS, WHAT JAZZ WAS, WHAT JAZZ HAS, WHAT JAZZ DOES
Finally it’s break time.
“How old is Greg Kursten?” I ask Charles.
“He’s either 24 or 25,” Charles says. “I have trouble now telling the difference between a 23-year-old and a 25-year-old. And there’s a big difference, and I used to could tell.”
Then Charles pauses and says quite earnestly, “Fifty-year-old shit might be what’s happening. You ever think about how dumb you were at 25?”
I go over to sit at the bar. Seated there near me is a friendly couple, obviously at home with the music. The woman, smiling, unrushed, tells me she’s the daughter of legendary guitarist M undell
Lowe, who was for many years musical director (sometimes with the Modern Jazz Quartet’s John Lewis) of the Monterey Jazz Festival. Mundell Lowe’s name is listed as a coming attraction on a poster at the Palace Bar’s entrance, along with Shorty Rogers.
Her name is Debbie, the one for whom the late pianist Bill Evans penned his lovely “Waltz for Debbie.” She and her husband, Mike Powers, have just dropped by to catch the set. Mike leans past his wife and says, “This kind of music that Charles McPherson plays makes a person think — in the heart.”
They tell me about the Dick Gibson Jazz Party. It’s a party the millionaire throws every year in Colorado, where, as Debbie explains, “Musicians perform by invitation only, and all the guests are there by invitation only.”
“Yes,” I tell Debbie. “I’ve heard about how Dick Gibson controls the whole event and how he doesn’t like Duke Ellington. And if a musician plays a Duke Ellington tune, Gibson is apt to say something about it in terms that Ellingtonians would find offensive.” Chuclt McPherson leans over to throw in for good measure, “If Dick Gibson said anything in my presence that was insulting of Duke’s music, I would ask him, 'What’s that supposed to mean, sucker?’ ”
Just as some kids are Army or Navy or Air Force brats, Debbie is a jazz brat. “It must’ve been tough,” I say, “being Mundell Lowe’s daughter.”
“I didn’t see all that much of my dad, growing up,” Debbie tells me. “And we’ve had our problems. He was hardly ever there. But I respect him now. He and I both have been working at it — real hard.”
“He’s one of the greats,” I tell Debbie.
“Yeah, I know. That’s what pisses me off, when musicians of his caliber go to audition at a club in L.A. And these yuppie club managers don’t even know who they’re listening to. That’s why a lot of jazz musicians are moving out of L.A. down here to San Diego, which is a lot more receptive to real jazz.”
“Don’t tell nobody,” drummer Earl Williams used to tell me, “but can’t you see Barry [Harris] thinking, ‘Well, I can be Bud [Powell]; and, Charles, you can be Bird; and, Lonnie, you can be Dizzy or Miles,’ you dig?"
Earl lived near me on Edison Street, Detroit. Earl became a much-sought-after New York studio drummer. In those days, though, he liked nothing better than to put words into the mouths of players he worked with, including Harris and McPherson and Hillyer.
Earl Williams and I went to Central High School; Charles and Lonnie were at Northwestern, which had a hip band. Like Earl, I sat at the back of the Central band, back there with the rhythm section, where all the goof-offs accumulated, or so it seemed.
Like my father, I played tuba. Officially. But I quietly took trumpet lessons from Larry Teal at the Teal Studios. And at home I practiced to Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, and Chet Baker records.
Record companies were pushing Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Shorty Rogers and His Giants, Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, Stan Getz, Stan Kenton. But in Detroit we were too industrialized and urbanized and working class mutating into or crammed up cheek by jowl with middle class not to lean toward what Bird, Diz, Miles, Bud, Sarah Vaughan, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Illinois Jacquet, Dexter Gordon, Dinah Washington, Count Basie, J.J. Johnson, Sonny Rollins, and Mingus were doing. This didn’t mean we didn’t listen or support the gentler jazz; we simply knew that when it came right down to grits and groceries, those palm trees and easy breezes weren’t what life in Detroit was about.
Earl’s father was Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams, a bankably successful tenor saxophonist, whose recording of "The Hucklebuck” is one of the all-time great rhythm and blues hits of the late 1940s.
- You do the Hucklebuck,
- You do the Hucklebuck,
- And if you don’t know how to do it,
- Boy, you outta luck!
Rumors circulated in the diddybop jazz sector that Paul Williams had lifted that melody right off of Charlie Parker, whose “Now’s the Time” sounds exactly like “The Hucklebuck.” But, like “The Hucklebuck,” scuttlebutt was hard to pin down. And, hey, Charlie Parker didn’t seem to mind. Or did he? Certainly there is no composer in the 20th Century who did more with blues than Bird —and without altering its basic 12- or 16-bar structure.
To my knowledge, Bird never filed a lawsuit. According to Ross Russell, author of Bird Lives and the fan who founded Dial Records, a key bop label, Bird was usually too busy dreaming up some brand-new approaches to the blues, refurbishing the blues, to fret over such transgressions.
“Another Hairdo” was the name Bird gave to what might be one of his most intellectual blues. Others include “Cool Blues,” “Barbados,” “Blues for Alice,” and "Parker’s Mood.” The world still seems to love Bird’s blues. Certainly,Charles McPherson loves and understands them with soulful and sometimes impish precision.
Everything Charles plays is blues-drenched. Blues come with the territory: Poets are expected to write freshly about the moon and June and love and doves; jazz musicians have to learn to play the blues — and still make it sound like the latest news.
Scuttlebutt had it, too, that Charles and Lonnie deliberately stayed on at Northwestern High longer than necessary because the band loved and needed them.
Considering the square. Republican, McCarthyite, post-Korean War, crewcut, repressive times we were growing up in, that wasn’t so tough to do.
Around 1954, when I was a freshman at Central, the biggest thing happening for my own underage crowd, and for plenty of rusty, dusty grown folks too, was World Stage; World Stage, named after Shakespeare’s pronouncement in As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage,/ And all the men and women merely players;/ They have their exits and their entrances^ And one man in his time plays many parts."
The part I loved about World Stage was that I could actually get in there. I was too young to get into the other jazz clubs. This is how I describe the World Stage in a collection of musical memoirs:
For underage jazz lovers, Sunday afternoons and Monday nights were special. There was no way you were going to fake out the doormen at Baker's Keyboard Lounge, the Flame Show Bar, the West Inn, the Paradise Club, the Chesterfield Lounge, or Club 12, no matter how artfully you colored in your mustache. But you always felt right at home at World Stage, where Sunday afternoons and Monday nights the New Music Society, funded largely by subscribing members, put on concerts in a warmly packed upstairs theater-in-the-round setting.
Looking back, you could say that World Stage was a sort of precursor of the jazz loft. There were no refreshments or floor cushions, but for under a buck fifty — chump change by today’s standards — you could fall up and kick back in one of those vintage canvas folding chairs and be transported for hours by the likes of Yusef Lateef, Barry Harris, Louis Hayes, Tommy Flanagan, Thad and Elvin Jones, Harold and Bernard and Ray McKinney, Curtis Fuller, Ernie Farrow, Alice (pre-Coltrane) McLeod, Ernie Wilkins’s Big Band, Lonnie Hillyer, Charles McPherson, Sonny Red, Kenny Burrell, Billy Mitchell, Frank Foster, Tate Houston, Earl Williams, Paul Chambers, Joe Henderson, Dorothy Ashby, Roy Brooks, Pepper Adams and Donald Byrd, and on and on.
Musicians were still sitting in and jamming with one another. Veterans and fledgling commingled. You never knew who might be putting in a guest appearance—Sonny Stitt, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Chet Baker, Carmen McRae, Eddie “Lockjaw" Davis, Terry Gibbs, Cannonball and Nat Adderley, Clifford Brown, Max Roach, Phineas Newborn, Jr.; Miles Davis. By the same token, you also had no way of knowing which homegrown notables would next be lured to New York. In its not-so-quiet way. World Stage was a monster!...
You loved the music these people made for the happiness and strength it gave you. Your feelings about them were such that once they made their inevitable moves from Detroit to New York...they virtually left holes in your life; deep holes that would later be only partially refilled with recordings and the satisfaction of knowing that they were every bit as beautiful and capable of being widely appreciated as your childlike heart had led you to believe.
Charles, as it turns out, doesn’t know Mundell Lowe’s daughter Debbie. But he does know the statuesque, vivacious vocalist and KSDS radio luminary Peggy Claire, who has also turned up to catch the group. In fact, Charles seems to maintain a friendly, chatty rapport with many of his fans and devotees.
It’s getting late. Charles points to my watch and asks what time it is. I happen to be wearing a Swatch with an elaborately playful face and hand display that spells out I LOVE YOU each time the second hand reaches 12. It’s a conversation piece and fun to sport, but it’s hard to see what time it is through the festive artwork. Charles looks at my watch again and realizes the time I’ve told him can’t be correct, that if lie goes by what I’ve told him, the timing on his upcoming set could be seriously off.
“ Al,” he says as gently as he can, “somebody your age doesn’t need a watch like that. You need a regular old plain watch with big Roman numerals so you can actually tell time instead of trying to be cute.”
The following night, Saturday, outside the Horton Grand, feeling around in my pockets for the ten bucks I’ll have to give up at the door, I’m stunned at how reasonable the cover charge remains, in view of the dizzying costs of live jazz all over the world. Is that one of the reasons jazz audiences in North America, unlike in Europe and Asia, tend to be middle-aged and older? In Manhattan jazz clubs, for instance, you’ll find plenty of visiting and business-class Japanese, Taiwanese, Koreans, Germans, Scandinavians, French, and even Saudis nodding their heads and tapping their feet. When strong currency starts talking, even the dollar has to walk!
Americans have a hard time affording jazz anymore. By the time you pay the cover, pay parking, dinner, drinks, a sandwich or quiche, a snack, you and your spouse, your date, your pal, your significant other, your co-vivant will drop close to $200 in an evening just to overhear some jazz. Surely these tricky economics must be affecting musicians, and ultimately it must affect the music itself. That is, if you are habitually playing to well-heeled audiences who have certain expectations of you, it’s going to affect what you play, no?
Another party of longtime Charles McPherson lovers arrive. One gentleman, silver-haired, mustachioed, spiffily decked out, steps out of his Mercedes-Benz, takes his elegant, well-dressed wrife by her arm, and, handing his keys to the parking attendant, then turns directly to me.
“It’s too bad,” he says, “that Charles has to go to Europe or Japan to be appreciated. There are plenty of us right here in San Diego, though, who know how great he is and love him.”
I can only imagine that, having watched me take notes in the half-dark the whole previous night, they want to ply me with positive feedback. And it’s worked.
Before long it’s showtime again. Charles floats over to where I’ve seated myself at the bar, right next to Chuck McPherson. Charles squeezes my elbow and says, “Let’s go back to Detroit, 1955. We’re at the Bluebird.”
And the instant he hits the stand, the band zooms right into Ray Noble’s “Cherokee,” a bebop anthem. The tempo is blistering. Charles solos and the whole band plays as though they’ve figured out how to float on quicksand. Saturday night is going to burn, I could tell. All fire and no smoke. We all kicked back to bask in the hot and ever-shifting light of what jazz has, what jazz does.
INNER VISTAS, INTERVIEWS — HIS, MINE, OURS
(This edited transcription is derived from tape-recorded talks I conducted with Charles and with Lynn McPherson — mostly in person, but sometimes by phone — between January and September of 1994.)
AI Young: I want to start by asking a question about improvisation. I had the pleasure of working with Ellis Marsalis (pianist father of Wynton, Branford, et al.] at a jazz educators’ conference back in 1987. All these teachers were eager to have Ellis enlighten them on the nature of improvisation and to have him share his teaching techniques with them. Ellis laughed and said that most jazz educators tend to be too uptight about improvisation, which he found amusing because, as he explained, “It’s so common in everyday life.” Then a woman shouted to him from the audience, “Would you give us some examples?” All Ellis Marsalis told her was, “Well, like, when we talk, when we converse with one another.”
As a performing artist who’s creating constantly, what can you say about the nature of improvisation?
Charles McPherson: Well, that’s a difficult question, because there’s a balance you want. In terms of a jazz solo, for instance, a lot of what you play is not improvisation at all. A lot of what you play are things that you know work. There are certain melodic statements that you’ve played before, and you know they work. I wouldn’t call it true improvisation when it comes to these things. Musicians call them cliches or licks. But they are necessary.
AY: The same in writing. You have certain phrases, certain tricks that will get you where you'need to go.
CM: Yeah, that will get you there. Now, say, during the course of a jazz solo, the things involved are those things that you know work, that have been rehearsed and you’ve got them under your fingers, and they’re mixed in with things that you’ve never played before.
Quite often the things that you do know or that you’ve played before, they are like catalysts, a jumping-off point. You can start out with a phrase that you know works, but it ends up being a catalyst for a new way to say that same thing. So it’s a combination of playing things you know and things you don’t know and have never played before.
Like in acting. There are two actors, they’re working from a set script. Maybe there’s a particular scene where these people have to say something to each other and, you know, maybe 75 percent of what they say has been written down and is set and is concrete and is there, and 25 percent they can mess around with a little bit and then come back to the established thing. And then, sometimes that 25 percent can lead into an even bigger portion of improvisation. But it’s still the interplay between them, that which is set and little bit of liberalness.
Now in the jazz solo, if you can just have a purely improvised solo from beginning to end, well, that’s the greatest thing in the world. But for the most part, it’s a combination of playing what you know and then those things (that) can be jumping-off points. In terms of writing music, basically, when a person conceives something and then writes it down, that’s like a frozen solo in a sense. You know what I mean?
AY: Most people aren’t aware that improvisation played a crucial role in so-called European classical music until the 19th Century, when it became possible for printed scores to be produced cheaply. Until then the improvising soloist was at the center of performances.
CM: I think those old European composers were great improvisers. What happened was after a while the music got so complicated...the extended form, the technique of orchestration became so complicated that it’s hard for a guy who’s really going to be a great composer and orchestrator and all that to also be the virtuoso. You don’t expect a Horowitz to write a symphony like Stravinsky, because those are lifetime involvements — in one thing. The main thing is, improvising, composing, it comes from the same part of the brain. The difference is that you write it down and it’s not liquid, it’s frozen now. It’s like a frozen solo. But it comes from the same wellspring, the same part of the brain.
AY: I did a piece on the Kronos Quartet a couple years ago, and what was interesting about their performances of Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans compositions is that they brought [bassists] Ron Carter or Eddie Gomez to handle improvised passages. And I was talking with David Harrington, first violinist, who founded Kronos, and I asked him, “Hey, what happened at the conservatory? What obviated your ability to improvise?” Michael explained that conservatory-trained classical musicians are usually so well trained to read music and interpret that they can’t just jump out there in the middle of a number and blow.
CM: Yeah. Because that’s a special thing. You have to learn how to do that. Some people never learn. Some people can do it, and then there’s levels of how great they can be.
AY: And you think it should be taught as part of music training?
CM: Yeah, you can teach it, but it’s like teaching people how to write. You can say, “Okay, this is the way you write a short story,” and you show them all the mechanics of that — plot, middle section, and then the resolution. And then that’s it. But to write a great story, it’s something else. I mean, you can show people how to speak English, and how to use words, but to put it all together —
AY: Do you ever feel stigmatized by being identified with the Detroit jazz scene of the ’50s?
CM: People in Detroit now, you know, it’s a whole different generation of young people who are not really aware of any of that. They might be aware that I’m from there, but I don’t know if they know about Barry’s (Harris] involvement with Detroit musicians. Now, the Detroit musicians that are, say, my age and older, they would know about Barry. Because Barry used to have sessions at his house, and he had his little methodology in teaching improvisation, and so a lot of guys would come over and kind of listen or study or pick up things. And they knew about Barry’s kind of teaching, you know. But I wouldn’t call my involvement with Barry or Lonnie like a “stigma,” because it’s not a negative. And nobody really thinks of it as a negative.
AY: Well, people used to actually think Barry was trying to turn you into Little Bird and Lonnie Hillyer into, say, Little Diz or Little Miles. Well, it was said with admiration.
CM: I could see how they might say that. But I can remember, I wanted to pattern myself after Charlie Parker, and Lonnie listened to Bird, Dizzy, and Miles. That’s who we were listening to in the early ’50s, mid-’50s. And so for us to be thought of in that way, and us being 14, 15, and 16 years old, it was like a very nice thing. So we thought we were wonderful. I mean, we were having fun.
AY: Nowadays, I’m disconcerted by how easily tenor players, say, studying in jazz studies MFA programs, can get that [John] Coltrane sound down. They can get anybody’s sound from the past, but it doesn’t seem easy for many such players to find their own sound. How would you characterize the process of finding your own sound?
CM: When we learned from older players and other leaders, we would have to take a record, slow it down, slow the solo down. We’d have to learn the thing from the record. When we couldn’t slow it down, we’d just have to learn what it is. You’d have to either write that solo or learn it by ear — or both. Then you learn it and you play it and you digest it and you see how this person did this or that, and this is the way we learned how to play. The other way would be just listening to people, and you learn how to play from that, and watching them. And people showing you things.
But the important thing is this. When we learned how to play, it was a trial-and-error situation. After a period of this, then you gradually evolved into a player. It’s like a child learning how to speak. First, it’s mumbo jumbo. He’s not saying anything. Then come the little one-word things, and then, pretty soon, sentences, and then paragraphs.
So when we were learning how to play, this is probably pretty much what happened. You go through this period of playing wrong notes — because the quest is to find the right notes. So you play a bunch of wrong notes, and then you say, “Oh, no, not that note, this note!”
But the process of playing the wrong notes and doing the wrong thing has a value. You’re learning something from being wrong, you see? Your discriminative faculty is being sharpened. Now from that being sharpened, there is something happening to your ear in terms of knowing, finding right in the midst of wrong. There’s a muscle, a mental muscle being used. In the end, after all of this trial and error, you have really learned something, you are solid.
AY: Is that still the way the young learn to play today?
CM: Here’s what happens today when a kid goes to some school and learns jazz improvisation. There’s no more groping so much because the instructor is already set. Now the guy just looks at the book where there’s a Charlie Parker solo. He no longer has to find out and sharpen his ear and copy the solo from the record, see?
Now [if] somebody writes that solo out, and there’s a whole book about Charlie Parker solos, the guy is not given the exercise of doing this trial-and-error stuff. So he just reads the solo and he finds out what the chord changes are, and he can proceed to play it. A person who has talent will learn how to play no matter what. But this trial-and-error thing is something that he will never learn.
AY: What does the demise of the jam session mean for jazz players? It’s rare now for musicians to just get together and play for fun, for the sheer hell and thrill of it.
CM: The jam session allowed guys to try their stuff out. Back in my day and even earlier, the jam session actually was stronger, more of an institution than even, say, in the late ’40s or early ’40s. And the function it would serve would be, you know, guys could practice. You play what you’ve been practicing, |see) how it’s working out, and you hear other guys, and you exchange ideas and that whole thing. And that was all part of the apprenticeship of learning how to play.
Also, big bands. There was a time when big bands were popular, and you learned a lot from that, too. You learned how to play with other people, how to blend with people. Years ago a big band was like a family. The guy playing first alto might be 50 years old, and you might be 21. Well, now, you can learn a whole lot from this guy, see, because you’re going to learn about the horn. You’re going to learn all these things, man, that would take you, trial and error, take you years to get what the 50-year-old could say in three sentences. And you could knock off four years of trial and error, which was good.
The bandleader was usually an older guy, and he was almost like a father to you. When you got 17, 20 people around you, some your age, some older, there was this kind of family thing, and a lot of music and lot of stuff being learned.
AY: Dizzy Gillespie got his sense of showmanship from sitting in the Cab Calloway Band and studying Cab, right?
CM: Yeah, because he’s from that generation. Those guys still had the consciousness of, “Okay, we’re playing music.” So the farther back you go, the more that is. That’s the interesting thing about the bebop. When bebop hit in the ’40s, all of a sudden the consciousness that came [was] maybe less involvement or less worry about the entertaining aspect of it. It’s really more the art of it. Charlie Parker, for instance, is kind of a strong figure here.
Bird was different than Dizzy in that Bird kind of just played. He was great and a virtuoso and all that stuff, and that was an attitude that he had while he was playing. He was still aware that he was entertaining people, because he was quite witty on the mike when he wanted to be, but he didn’t really do too much other than play.
He had humor. He wasn’t like some cold robot. There was a way he created some kind of rapport with the audience. But basically he was, like, “Okay, look. Horowitz doesn’t sing and dance. I don’t either. I hope you like what I’m doing. I’m enjoying it, and I’m going to do the best I can. And there it is.” Well, that attitude, that’s kind of part of what the bebop thing was.
Before that, Louis Armstrong and the guys were very much into, “Well, we can play his music, but we got to keep these people entertained!” I’m not knocking that. Dizzy was a little bit more into that. But, boy, when he put a horn to his mouth, it was serious business. But, yeah, those guys from the early ’40s and stuff, they still had that attitude of, “Okay, we’ve got to be entertaining,” which is fine. I think that maybe jazz guys need to have a little bit more of that now. They should be a little bit more ingratiating in that manner right now. Music does not have to suffer because you create some verbal rapport or whatever with the audience. It’s not like you’re being less artful.
AY: Sometimes I wonder what players still in their 20s, like your pianist Greg Kursten, must think while they’re playing old bop tunes such as Bird’s “Moose the Mooch” or Monk’s “Epistrophy,” or Bud Powell’s “Parisian Thoroughfare,” or Dizzy’s “A Night in Tunisia.”
CM: It’s a real heck of a thing to try to conceive. Not only that because you’re really delving into the soul of subjectivity some kind of way. If you could get in the body of one other human being and experience reality as this person’s seeing it, if you could do it for, like, 30 seconds and see how he’s viewing the world, it would probably be amazing. Because you don’t even know if you see the same kind of colors as other people. You’ll never know.
If you’re talking about music and what guys are thinking about, it’s amazing. I think that’s as diverse as there are people. I remember I was talking to this guy that I met a couple of days ago, and we were talking about Bird. And we were talking about how Bird looked when he played. He looked different than other people. It was almost like the reason Bird was so different, he looked detached in a funny way.
AY: Jack Kerouac said Charlie Parker looked like Buddha when he played.
CM: He looked detached. He looked like a guy performing something that he didn’t really even have to be awake to do. A funny kind of look on his face, real effortless, and he’s looking around the room, his eyes open. He was looking at people. And he also looked like he was playing pure emotions as done through music and by way of music. But it would almost look like the emotionality
is what gave him the impetus to play [some] particular phrase quite different than a lot of musicians. Most guys are thinking technically about the horn. It has nothing to do with the emotion itself.
AY: We’re talking about bebop. Bebop has been the predominant language of jazz for, what, 50 years now? I liken it to something like the baroque period in European music, a sort of classicized period musicians can build on forever.
CM: Forever, yeah. See, that’s what the interesting thing is, because really when you use the term bebop, it’s sort of trivializing in a way.
AY: [Saxophonist] Jackie McLean, in that book of A.B. Spellman’s, Four Lives in the Bebop Business [later retitled Black Music: Four Lives], said it was a terrible label to put on such a beautiful music.
CM: Yeah, right. But if you examine really what that music is about, and you break it down into component parts, what it is, is this. The greatest of those players who are associated with that music had a great sense of lyricism and melody, an incredible sense of rhythm, and a real good sense of harmony. And they were virtuosos. You see what I’m saying?
When you think about what music is, music is harmony, melody for certain, and rhythm. And then, if you got virtuosity, if we’re talking about instrumentalists, then those are some very wonderful things that make up this phenomenon of music. And so if you say, “Well, what sets bebop apart? What makes that different than any other type of jazz and type of music?” I would say the harmony and rhythm would be two strong components that might identify it. More syncopation, you know.
AY: I picked baroque deliberately, because baroque cooks.
CM: Yeah, it definitely does. If you listen to Bach, you could just play some Bach fugues, and that’s bebop. That’s a very strong thing, because you’re dealing with the musical line and melodic line.
But anyway, the rhythm — it’s an involvement with syncopation to a big degree, and also a little bit more. Harmonically, you’re dealing with what we would call the higher portions of the chord. You’re dealing with more dissonance and things like that.
And the phrasing, it’s just the even, long phrases. The melodic line is a long statement that connects with another. In other words, long musical sentences as opposed to short musical sentences. One way that’s easy for me to explain to people without getting into a technical thing is to compare music to language. That’s what it is, to me.
AY: Talk about the blues and the continuum of the blues running through all of this American music. I know a lot of things have been said. Last night you called it “the people’s music.” Stevie Wonder called the pentatonic scale “the people’s scale.” You can play his tune, “Sir Duke,” written for Duke Ellington, right up and down the black keys on the piano. So I was intrigued by your remark last night, because usually people talk about the blues in terms of suffering, pain, sadness. Being downhearted. But you suggest that there’s an attitude implicit in the blues, an attitude that forms when you don’t get your way.
CM: Yeah, because that’s why you’re downhearted. You’re downhearted as a result of something not happening the way you want it to happen. Right or wrong. Good or bad. But basically it’s got something to do with some emotional unfulfillment. But I want to say this, too. The blues can be that, but there’s such thing as happy blues. You know, “Glad to be unhappy”? And the contrary, “Laughing to keep from crying,” “If I didn’t have the blues, I wouldn’t have anything.”
AY: Miles always said it made him laugh when people started talking about how suffering has something to do with being able to play the blues or anything else well.
CM: I certainly would not make a statement that suffering has absolutely nothing to do with the emotionality of the blues in some kind of way. Because the blues, just that whole feeling, the treatment of music in that manner, has something to do with some form of — what’s the word? — some form of emotional dissatisfaction.
If a person is playing a love song about unrequited love, for instance, and he’s actually felt that emotion or he’s actually had that feeling, I certainly could not say that it’s not helping him play that emotion better. Now, maybe there’s such a thing as a person that’s always been fine in love and never has felt the wanting, and he could still play this kind of blues. Maybe that’s possible, but I would tend to believe that people do things better where they’ve actually experienced it on an empirical level. You’d have to experience that, have a feeling for that emotion, in order to really transfer that from the mental realm to reality. Music as a medium. In order for it to have the right kind of animation, it would seem like you’d have to feel that emotion that you were writing about.
AY: There are writers like that. There are some who can only write about what they’ve been through, and others — a diminishing bunch now that writers, like jazz musicians, are largely trained in universities — who can put themselves in the shoes and skins and minds of others.
CM: Yeah. Now, see, this is where technique and inspiration come in. And that’s when we were talking about improvisation. A good jazz solo is a combination of the thing that’s already known mixed with the thing maybe that’s never been played before. In some kind of way there’s a symbiotic thing that can happen. All of a sudden [there] is a jumping-off point for pure improvisation to happen. That’s a manifestation, in a sense, of the phenomenon of pure inspiration mixed with technique and knowledge. When you got the two working together, that’s an unbeatable combination.
You can’t draw upon pure inspiration in a given instrument. Your knowledge and your professionalism, your chops, your virtuosity, you’ve got that to carry you, and that sometimes can be the jumping-off point where all of a sudden that just triggers a real pure inspirational situation for that moment. But now it’s pouring out of you, but it might have taken your technique and your knowledge to stir that up, to open that other door — that other unworldly thing you’re talking about, your collective unconscious. You’ve got all that [collective unconscious] knowledge and you work with it.
AY: Last night after the gig I met some old-time fans of yours out in front of the hotel. They were telling me how unfortunate it is that you’re appreciated in Europe, in Japan, all over the world, but don’t get the kind of support you should right here in San Diego, where you live.
CM: Well, I think one reason is because abroad there’s this infatuation with Americana of any sort — with music or with dress or with attitude. Not just jazz. Rock-and-roll, much more than jazz, is very much appreciated in japan and Europe, and anywhere else. And also the fact that [jazz is] more of a novelty, that whole scene, the novelty of it is making it more seductive for them as a form. It’s different. It didn’t come from their culture, but it’s good and they like it for whatever reason. And then the other thing is like in the Bible, where it says that the prophet is never really understood or even accepted in his own hometown.
jazz was formulated here in this country, but this country does not really embrace jazz. In fact, this is something I want to make sure you don’t leave out. Sometimes I get — I don’t want to use the word bitter — but I can get cynical. When people say jazz, and they associate jazz with America and all that. And it’s true that jazz was incubated in America and came about on this soil here. But it’s almost that jazz made it in spite of America, not because of America. See, most people want to say it’s an American concoction, and it is what it is because of America.
What I’m saying is that it is what it is, and it made it. I would consider it an art form — in its best situation, I would say it’s an art form — and it made it in spite of, not because of.
Anything that happens in a three-dimensional reality, as we know it, has to happen in time and space somewhere, so it would have to involve geography. So, yeah, it happened here, and maybe there’s a set of social and cultural situations that were interplayed, that brought about or incubated this music, (that was] fertile enough for it to take seed and flower. Yeah, it occurred here, but it occurred, as I said, in spite of [ America ] and under great — what’s the word for it? — with a lot of resistance. Right from the giddy-up.
And right now, today, even though you can go and hear a jazz artist at Carnegie Hall — I will say that it’s more respected than it used to be, and I don’t want to totally bash America about this, but even so, even today, jazz still is not appreciated by this country.
AY: Years ago you came over to my house on Edison Street in Detroit with Earl Williams. You came up to my room, and you looked through my record collection. I had Brownie [Clifford Brown], Miles, Bird, Dinah Washington, Mingus, jay and Kai [trombonists j.j. Johnson and Kai Winding], Monk, Duke, Jazz at the Philharmonic. But I also had a lot of West Coast stuff — Shorty Rogers and His Giants, Jimmy Giuffre, Chico Hamilton, Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck. And you said, “You sure do have a lot of West Coast jams!” And I said, “Is that bad?”
I thought about that the other day. Many people on the East Coast took an attitude that was less than complimentary toward West Coast jazz.
CM: People on the West Coast loved it, yeah. In fact, that whole scene, those guys were pretty successful. They sold a few records for that period they were around. I guess it offered another version or another way to think about it, to play the music, which was maybe less energetic.
AY: I’ve noticed when I listen to West Coast players, black or white — take saxophonists, say. Buddy Collette, Jerome Richardson. Their sound is similar to their white counterparts — Art Pepper, Herb Geller, Bud Shank. That amazed me when I really started to listen, because I realized that climate and lifestyle might have something to do with the way sound and tone gets shaped.
CM: Probably West Coast people are different from East Coast people. Musically. Music can manifest that in some kind of way. But, you know, if you just take music out of it and you take a Southern Californian — he’s different from the East Coast. He’s got to be, because weather, the environment, shapes attitudes.
AY: When I think about the lightlessness of Michigan, New York, Chicago, Ohio, Indiana — all that cold and industrialization, that locked-in flatland cornfields... You wake up in winter and it’s pitch black outside. You go to work and it’s gray and cloudy and snowing. Then, right after lunch — and people back there think nothing of having a bowl of chili and a boilermaker for lunch — it starts getting dark again. Whoa!
I thought about it when I was back in Michigan last year, teaching. Detroit still loves bebop. They love [it] hard!
CM: I heard Curtis Fuller say this. Curtis is a trombone player, and Curtis is probably seven or eight years older than myself, and he was saying that in the ’50s, early ’50s, that Detroit was one of two places, if not the only place, that knew how to dance to Charlie Parker. And what he meant by that was, Charlie Parker’s music quite often would be up-tempo — so when people started listening to that, some people didn’t know how to dance to it. They didn’t know how to cut time. That’s the way you dance to up-tempo music. What you do is you cut the time in half.
AY: On this video of the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, footage from the ’40s, they got people out there jitterbugging — men in zoot suits doing splits and women with skirts flying all up around their necks — and moving in breakneck time to outrageously fast numbers — Gil Fuller’s “Things to Come,” and all such. And the jazz pundits always say bebop was an art music; quit dancing to it because you couldn’t.
CM: But Detroit especially was known for some heck-of-a-dancers. So when they heard Charlie Parker, that presented no problem to them. They knew exactly what to do. He could be playing “Koko” or be playing some kind of up-tempo thing, you wouldn’t know anything about music, you’d just cut time — and still ballroom on it. I’m talking about ballroom, where they’re swishing all over the floor with a woman, and they’re dipping and stuff. They just knew how to handle that. So that’s what Curtis meant
He used to travel all around and play [bebop], and all of a sudden the dancers would stop. Yeah, but he said in Detroit, man, you could put Bird on and them people still knew how to deal with that. I thought that was great!
AY: Detroit. What a rich heritage! I went to school with Aretha Franklin, Freda Payne, Louis Hayes, Lily Tomlin. I could go on and on naming musicians and entertainers and other artists. I remember walking around over on the East Side, right around there at Woodward and Clairmount. Donald Byrd lived around there. We’d hear him practicing upstairs. No big thing.
CM: All the Motown hits, all the people involved with that. How about Sugar Ray Robinson? And Joe Louis?
There’s all of that, and all the musicians. Well, I think it’s a combination of the fact that you had this mass movement from the South up there because of the industries and the automobile plants. It was a way for people to make a lot of money. So you got a mix of people, so you got numbers, and then the attitude.
Now, in terms of music — my generation watched our fathers work in those plants and work hard. They made good money, but they worked their asses off. So a lot of us said, “Well, you know what, man? You’re either going to be a doctor or a lawyer or you’re going to be some kind of white-collar professional guy. Or you’re going to be in the factory like your father was.” A lot of us said, “Man, I don’t want to do that.” So if you’re not going to be that doctor or lawyer, then there’s music. [Just] as long as you’re not in those foundries. For us, that was a heck of an incentive.
It was like me. “I don’t want to be a doctor so I’m not going to do that, and I’m not going to work in the plant, so I better deal with this music, and I mean really deal with it. Because otherwise I’m going to be in the plant like my father. I can’t, I don’t want to hang with that.” So that was, for a lot of us, man, what my generation was like.
AY: I was listening to Louis Hayes being interviewed by some European on shortwave. Louis was saying, “Detroit? The musicians there were so bad that even if you came into town playing something like the harp, you couldn’t even get on the harp.” We had a woman named Dorothy Ashby who would say, “Well, let’s see if you really a harp player.”
CM: Yeah, right. Detroit was rough, man. It was rough! There was a bunch of good musicians that happened to be there. It’s close enough to New York to get some New York influence, but far enough away so that [Detroiters] could still have their own little thing.
And then you got a lot of people, a big city, a lot of clubs. And at that time, the way the circuit worked, guys from New York, when they’re going west, it’s New York and then it’s Detroit. Or Cleveland, Detroit, and then Chicago and then, say, Denver, on down into L.A., Route 66, and then you come back. But Detroit was on the way from East Coast to West Coast in terms of the traveling band. And in terms of classes, it had a middle class, and a pretty big black middle class as well. People had fine houses on Edison, man, and LaSalle Boulevard and Boston Boulevard. Even my street. I grew up on a street called Tireman.
But that whole area, you know, that was not, like, a poor ghetto. It was, like, kind of a middle-class situation, and it offered a nice growing-up environment; because it wasn’t that we were pampered, but we weren’t so debilitated that we couldn’t have a nice little life and grow and play and have a little fun. And a lot of the musicians came from that kiod of situation. Not all of them, of course. But from that kind of family situation, that’s enough. It’s a nice way to grow up.
AY: I don’t know if you agree with this or not, but the color, the flavor of your compositions, particularly “Karen.” In it I can hear what I would call a Mingusian influence....
CM: Well, I don’t disagree with it. Yeah. I met Mingus in 1959, and at that time, Eric Dolphy, the saxophone player, was working with Mingus, and Eric was getting ready to quit the band. Ted Curson, the trumpet player, was working with Mingus and he was getting ready to quit. So Mingus needed a saxophone player and a trumpet player. So Lonnie Hillyer and myself, we had just come to New York, we had been there a few months, and Detroit saxophonist Sonny Red Kiner told Mingus that there were two young guys in town that would probably be able to play his music and he should try to hear them if he could.
So there was a little coffeehouse on McDougall Street in New York, where they had jam sessions in the afternoon, the Cafe Wha. And at that time, you know, across the street Bob Dylan would be working in [The Gaslight), and Bill Cosby would be doing some stand-up comedy routine in some other club. Okay. So, one afternoon Mingus came in, and we were playing at this session, and he sat in with us. He played with us, just to check us out, and he hired us.
I worked with him from 1960 until about 1972, off and on. Sometimes there would be a year, maybe, that I wouldn’t work with him, but I’d work with him three or four years in a row. So, off and on, my involvement with Mingus was almost 12 years. Danny Richmond, the drummer, worked with him longer than that, longer than anybody.
Lonnie and myself, our first gig with Mingus, involved working at a club in the Village, the Showcase, and the club owner owed him $2000. He didn’t pay Mingus for whatever reason.
Mingus proceeded to tear the guy’s piano up. He physically ripped the strings out of the piano, a Steinway grand or some kind of grand piano. He wrecked the piano and tore the bar up. Lonnie and myself, we were like, what, 21, 20 years old, and we were looking at that. “Man, we just auditioned to get in this guy’s band, and we got in the band, and there he is over there doing that. Should we be happy that we got the gig? Or should we be walking out of this room right now and never looking at this guy again?”
Mingus weighed 300 pounds, and he was probably 40-some years old, and we were, like, 20. I mean, it was awesome! But anyway — boy, it was a very interesting involvement. I learned a lot from him musically, and I learned a lot about life from working with him. He was a very interesting guy. Very, very candid and very aggressive. He had no qualms about saying whatever he felt. And not doing too much editing, which would get him into a lot of trouble.
But composition-wise, I learned a lot from Mingus — more than playing, just kind of listening to the way he wrote. He was very much influenced by Duke Ellington, but he had his own way, his own style of writing. I had a lot of respect for him.
AY: That Mingus band — wasn’t that the first one you traveled with?
CM: Yeah, that was my first. In Detroit I played with Barry Harris, we played together a lot in Detroit — Lonnie, Barry, and the Detroit guys. But when I went to New York, that was the first name, world-class band that I worked with. And one of the first records I made was with him.
AY: Charles Mingus was forever taking on the socioeconomics of jazz. That is, not only the fact that record companies cheated him, but that African-American musicians have a particular duty to take some entrepreneurial incentive, to know how the bebop business works.
CM: Yeah. Mingus, he was politically active and politically conscious. Whether you agreed with him or not, but he was very much into it. Let’s see, this was during the ’60s — Mingus had compositions dealing with Governor Faubus —
AY: “Fables of Faubus.” The band sang, “Oh Lord,/ Don’t let ’em grab us!/ Oh Lord,/ Don’t let ’em stab us!/ Oh Lord,/ No more swastikas!/ Oh Lord,/ No more Ku Klux Klan!” Then Mingus sang, “Why is he so sick/ And ridiculous?” Then the band answered with, “They brainwash and teach you hate/ And send you out to segregate.” Whoa! Mingus was something else, wasn’t he? Columbia Records wouldn’t let him record those lyrics on that album, Mingus Ah Um, so I didn’t know what the title “Fables of Faubus” meant until I got to New York and heard the band do it live.
[Governor Orval Faubus, in September 1957, called out the Arkansas National Guard to block school integration in Little Rock, defying the 1954 Supreme Court decision that in effect ordered states to desegregate public schools “with all deliberate speed.”]
CM: And Mingus wrote poetry. He, of course, wrote music, but he would be interested in social comment and involving his music with it, which, in a way, a lot of guys during the ’60s were doing. Max Roach was, too.
AY: He and Max Roach started Debut Records back around 1950, at a time when no musicians were even thinking that way. Even though if you traveled back to the ’20s, you’d find the Black Swan label, which was black owned and operated.
CM: Mingus was very innovative in that fashion. And, in fact, the way he handled his band was like a corporation. He called it the Jazz Workshop, we were paid with a salary check, where they took out all of the unemployment. Social Security. So he ran his band like a little business. And he had his own little record company for a while and he produced things. So he was an innovative guy. He was an interesting guy. He was of mixed origin, you know. He was certainly African-American; he was a lot of Indian and Caucasian.
AY: And about that name — Mingus.
CM: Mingus. I think — is it Mexican?
AY: It’s from people who shortened their name from Dominguez. Mexican-American. And if you go out to Texas, New Mexico, or Arizona, you find a lot of Minguses.
CM: Yeah, okay. Because he’s from Nogales. It sounds Asian. It’s almost like “Ming.”
AY: He would capitalize on that. You know, the album Mingus Dynasty, where Mingus is all over the cover, all got up in a Chinese robe?
CM: Yeah, he had an interesting ancestry, and he brought all of that with him. He brought that all to his music, his whole cultural mix. An interesting, interesting guy.
AY: We haven’t talked about drugs, if you don’t mind talking about that. I was re-reading Ben Sidran’s book Black Talk, which was his Ph.D. thesis in American Studies at the University of Sussex, England. Like him. I’m fascinated by the connection between jazz and drugs, particularly heroin. As for smack and bebop, Sidran mentioned, among other things, heroin alters “aural perception” in users.
CM: Well, you can’t really divorce that phenomenon from the larger culture, the bigger situation that was happening in America during the ’40s. You could say that bebop guys were involved with that because it was around, it was easily gotten in the first place. Now, if you start thinking about why it was there, and how it got there — that’s almost more interesting than the fact that bebop musicians dabbled with it. Then you start getting into organized crime. Who brought it over here? Who decided to put it in which community?
AY: It was first used in the Irish community in Hell’s Kitchen, New York, early this century.
CM: When you start thinking about the chemical composition of the drug and how it acts on consciousness, I would say there is something religious about it It acts on a part of the brain, the nervous system, that evokes a certain kind of mentation. In other words, there are cultures and people, other than the urban people, who have been dealing with drugs. I imagine that you’ve got some cultures that will sit and do whatever they do and then think about God — in the jungle, or in the forest or in the mountains or something. Those people weren’t using it the way an urban individual does, to get high, hang out. That’s what the Western propagandized brain does with drugs. They go get high, then go into the tenements, or the projects. Those other cultures go sit down in the woods and stare at a tree for eight hours and think about God or something.
But that drug thing. There is a camaraderie that goes on, even while you’re smoking a joint at a party full of people, and the people that smoke go off into another room and leave the squares in the other part of the house. Then there’s something that they have with each other. “Yeah, we do this, and those guys out there, they don’t do this. We don’t want them to smell it or know we’re doing it.” And there’s that whole camaraderie and taboo-secret thing.
AY: Sidran says that; among musicians in the ’40s and ’50s it was a subcultural emblem. It automatically turned the world around. Hipness came not so much from a showy front as (from) an actual philosophy devised by people who were hostile to the System because they were left out of the System. So they kind of flipped everything on its head and said, “We’re the in-group, and you’re the out-group.”
CM: And when you start counting in the euphoric properties and feelings of well-being — it just sealed it. There it is. You got the whole package deal. You got spiritual, you got physical, you got attitude — the whole thing.
I’ve thought about some of that stuff. A long time ago, in the ’40s or whenever, the only people who were delving into change of consciousness and all the drugs were the arty types — the musicians, the writers, the poets, the intellectuals. I can remember when smoking a joint was only done by a select few people.
Man, I can even remember where, during the ’50s in the black community, there were only certain types of young guys who would smoke pot, and the other type guy wouldn’t, because wine was more his thing. You know, like, getting drunk and fighting and shit.
The only kind of guys that would smoke pot back in those days were guys that liked jazz, kind of hipsters. And the other guy, who was more of a thug, actually, into doo-wop, and wine, and getting drunk, and fighting and cutting — you know, go to the party and breaking the party up; the kind of guy who was doing that was the kind of guy that didn’t smoke pot. That’s too damn exotic for him. His cup of tea was some cheap red wine. And the guy who was wearing the suits like Soupy Sales was the guy smoking pot. And listening to Miles. And Charlie Parker.
[Long before he became a regular member of the McHale's Navy cast. Sales thrived in Detroit as a comic personality, jazz-bitten. who for years hosted a popular late-evening weeknight TV talk and variety show.]
And then, the heavy-duty cats who were into heavy drugs like heroin — it was still only engaged in by musicians or artists; it wasn’t the general populace at large. Something happened during the ’60s, or whenever, where it turned into a thing where it wasn’t just the little hipster or the guy on the corner sneaking in a joint. Now everybody smokes pot.
Basically, I’m saying this. When the artist gets high, or the poet, or the musician, the thing they want to do is go do what they do — write, paint, play, think — they can do that because with this alteration of consciousness they can do what they want to do anyway, which is (their art).
Now when the postman, and the garbageman, and the Hell’s Angel cat, the biker, when the ordinary thug — like the sociopath — when he’s smoking pot, that’s all part of his lifestyle, and he’s getting high, what does he want to do? Well, he wants to do what he does. I mean, he’s not gonna get high and go play the horn. And he’s not gonna write poetry. So in a way it would’ve been better for the drug situation to stay with a little subculture.
JAM: A TOAST TO SAN DIEGO BASSIST HANK DOBBS
Up jumps Sunday. And, like it or not, it’s afternoon, even in the jazz world. Charles and Lynn are letting me trail them from their home in North Park to the Catamaran in Mission Beach, where there’s going to be a big benefit for Hank Dobbs, a long-established area bass player who’s in ill health.
“Will Paul be playing with you?” Lynn asks Charles on our way into the hotel’s performing ballroom.
Paul happens to be Paul Sundfor, the gifted alto saxophonist who is Lynn’s brother.
“Yes,” Charles tells his wife.
“Aha,” I tell myself, “you’re about to hear something you don’t hear every day. Perhaps an elephant on roller skates? Or Rollerblades?”
Indeed, when their segment of the program rolls around, Paul Sundfor and Charles McPherson, both of them exceptional though highly individualized performers, make music together soulfully, they solo and trade solos with fire, with brilliance. Taking notes is the last thing I care to do. I can hear the light they generate. Yes, hear the light. They used to call it synesthesia. Paul and Charles’s beaming, reflective accomplices in light are pianist Gary Lefevre and bassist Bob Magnuson, who, like drummer )im Blank, performs also with the San Diego Symphony.
They open with an upbeat yet meditative “Billie’s Bounce” and seem to segue seamlessly, deliciously, soloist by soloist, into the ever-valid ballads “Lover Man” (Lefevre), “Body and Soul” (Sundfor), and “But Beautiful” (McPherson).
Paul Sundfor is a wonderful player, deeply experienced, obviously, and while not as emotional as his brother-in-law Charles, he’s every bit as intense. I can also hear and feel how much Paul takes the audience itself into consideration. He plays with urgency, but always thoughtfully, inventively, and with consummate taste. The spirit of the afternoon reminds me of the old Norman Granz-produced IATP, Jazz at the Philharmonic, concerts. The mix of performers includes singers Valleja Roberts and Al Washington and pianist Clarence Bell.
As for the audience — happy, habitual, hardcore jazzers — they’re not beyond swooning and screaming (Washington and Bell’s interpretation of “What I Would Not Do for Love” is a show-stopper). But this largely mature, well-mannered crowd would never cut loose or start ripping and smashing the furnishings the way excited crowds back in the ’40s used to do at JATP auditorium performances in L.A. and elsewhere.
Afterwards, Lynn introduces me to Paul, who looks somewhat professorial in his soft cotton shirt and quiet sports jacket, and, unlike Charles, unnecktied.
“I really enjoyed your playing,” I tell him.
Paul shakes my hand gently and says, “Thanks, man, thanks a lot.”
Minutes later, I overhear Lynn telling Charles, “I think you have a brighter sound than Paul.” Meaning, in musical terms, that Charles's sound resounded with a certain tonal brilliance and clarity and vibrancy, which is what I term light.
INNER VISTAS, INTERVIEWS — HERS, MINE, THEIRS
AY: I’m fascinated by the fact that you two found your way to each other. When he saw me piecing things together, after I found out that you’re a musician and Paul was your brother, Charles said, “This is some other kind of stuff, isn’t it?” I said, “Yes, it is.”
Are you from a musical family?
Lynn McPherson: Yes. Both my parents played music as children. My mom played the piano, and my dad was always really interested in music and had a lot of jazz on all the time and played a little bit of trumpet and cornet, but not very seriously. Paul and I showed talent when we were kids and were real encouraged, so — Paul’s main love is jazz saxophone, but he also plays classical music real well.
AY: It sounds as though this business of classical versus jazz didn’t exist in your household.
LM: Well, in a way. My parents wanted both of us to have a classical background, because they believed that was the way to learn how to play the instruments, but I was a little bit like the bad guy because I loved jazz, but I wasn’t very talented with it, I thought, and so I wanted to be a classical pianist. I think I disappointed them a little, especially my dad because he really likes jazz a lot better. My dad was Swedish and Norwegian, and my mom is Italian.
AY: What was your formal training?
LM: I started very young and then I played very seriously. Even when I was about eight or nine years old. I had real good teachers and some good people in LA., and then I went to Cal State Northridge and stayed up there a few years when I was finished, teaching and accompanying. But I got kind of burned out. I was [only] about 23 or 24. I think that’s one thing with deciding something so young and being pretty one-dimensional about it. I don’t really regret that I played the piano for all that time, but, boy, my social life suffered for a long time.
I was going to go on to San Francisco Conservatory. I was accepted and was very excited about it. But my parents weren’t real thrilled with that, so they weren’t going to support me through it. I wanted to go ahead and just make some money and then not be in school for a while.
I ended up staying in L.A., and I was working a lot. I’d have three or four recitals on a couple weekends, mostly accompanying, and it was too much music. But to make enough money, that’s what you have to do. So I decided to come back here and just really see what I wanted to do, and then I ended up, “I want to play, but I don’t like playing professionally.” And then I met Charles and stayed here.
AY: He told me the story of your meeting at the Good Earth in La Jolla.
LM: That’s right! I met him there, but I didn’t know that’s who he was. I knew of him, and I knew his playing a little bit, but my brother knew him real well.
I think I may have even waited on him a few times. When I moved back here, I just wanted to work a little bit and just hang out, and I didn’t want to play, and then here I am waiting on Charles McPherson, not even knowing, probably being quite the snot, because I hated waitressing.
And then a few months later a mutual friend of ours was trying to get me to meet him, thinking that we’d really have a lot in common. And finally I met him the last time that he played at Elario’s. This is about 12 years ago. And I thought we hit it off, and I think he thought we did, too.
AY: Well, it must be a very unusual kind of thing where you understand this life because you’re a musician. I know people whose [spouses] are working all the time, and they get very upset about it periodically because they’re not around.
LM: It’s different now that Camille is here, but I’ve always enjoyed Charles coming and going. It’s almost like Charles is so into his music and his thoughts, so it’s not like when he’s here he’s all that much here anyway. So I’m a pretty independent person. It’s kind of hard on me when Camille is here and she really misses him. But I feel like I understand the lifestyle real well. I also used to really enjoy when he was gone because then I could have the time to myself and have quiet. I must admit that we have a couple problems living together, because there are times when I don’t want to hear anything, and Charles is a noisy guy with all of the stuff that he’s doing all the time.
But, yeah, we have a real good understanding. I think that probably our most common bond is the music. And it’s always been important to me. I think for as long as I’ve had good friends, you know, even as a kid, my friends were always musicians, so I think when you’re that into something, it’s hard not to have somebody around you that understands it. It’s kind of like having a religion, really. It’s really the same thing. It’s his god. But I understand the feeling that Charles has for his music.
AY: Does Charles ever consult with you on musical problems?
LM: Not recently, but before — this whole last bit of writing for this recent album, I was about as uninvolved as you could possibly be because I was usually sleeping while he was working. But there have been a lot of other times where I’m really listening to what it is that he’s doing. I don’t think I have one original thought in my mind, but I can finish off phrases real well.
This is one reason why I didn’t feel like I could be a jazz player, besides the fact that it’s so male-dominated. I mean, there are people walking around that hear melodies in their heads, and they hear it from when they’re kids. Charles hears everything. I mean, constantly he’s hearing [music]. And when he is hearing somebody else’s music, I think his mind is working so that he’s listening to it in a way that an average person doesn’t listen to it, so he’s very obsessed with this.
But at the same time, you can get stuck. He’ll get a couple of really good motifs and he has maybe a hundred different ways to let it go, but he’s not hearing the one that would maybe be the right one. I remember “Etudes and Illusions in Blue.” [The title was later shortened to “Illusions in Blue.”] It’s a great tune, but I remember when Charles was writing it, he kept playing the same thing over and over again, and I finally went in and I said, "God, here’s what you do. Go up, make it louder.” And he took a whole bunch of my suggestions, so that tune— I was kidding with him, but I said, “Hey, I just co-wrote this tune.”
AY: Did he give you credit?
LM: Yes, he did. I think he probably had to or I would have been quite mad: So I think I’ve helped a little bit, but not usually. The way I help is just trying to stay out of his way when he’s in the right mood to do his writing, and with practicing, you know, that, too. We just try to stay out of each other’s way.
It’s a great life. Charles is a bit shy, too. You probably can’t tell that because he seems outgoing and comfortable with people, but he really is very private and shy. There’s this big part of him that is.
AY: Charles, what’s next for you?
CM: At the end of September I go to Detroit. They have this Bluebird [club] reunion every year. And this time I’m thehonoree. They have it at a big nice hotel downtown. And they bring in people like Kenny Burrell, myself, or whomever — Barry Harris, Detroit alumni guys, and they make a big deal out of it. It’s a kind of a scene, you know?
When I came to Detroit — to show you how fate and providence work — of all the neighborhoods and all the places in Detroit, as big as Detroit is, I just happened to move on the same street as the Bluebird. Threff blocks from me. My mother moved in with her sister on Tireman, right down the street from the hippest local club in Detroit. And when I started getting interested in this bebop, I knew by then that this club down the street played that kind of music. Well, man, then that just brought it together.
Everything in my life has worked like a puzzle — everything that’s gone on in terms of music. Around the comer from me, Barry Harris lived. Lonnie Hillyer is on the same street. When I first met Lonnie, he wasn’t really playing music, and I wasn’t either. He was just a little neighborhood friend. His brother had a trumpet, and he started messing around on his brother’s horn. And then in junior high school, that’s when we really.got into it. Not long after that, that’s when Miles came to Detroit and stayed two years. We would go sit in with him at the Bluebird. We used to come on Sunday afternoons. They’d let us in there to play as long as our parents were with us. And Miles was listening. He’d say, “Yeah, you young cats gon’ be all right.” So that’s how I started. After I got out of high school, I was playing professionally.
AY: How did you get out here to San Diego?
CM: My mom was here. I wanted to get away from New York. My mom’s sisters were here in the ’30s. My mom came out here to get away from that weather. And I came out here to cool out, you know, to get away from New York. When I came out here, I stopped smoking cigarettes, started eating good food. I just wanted to get away from that New York scene.
I want to emphasize the role that my mom played. So many of us black children, we come up with no dad, so you’re raised by your mama. And I was one of them. She worked hard and saved and took her money and bought me a horn. You know, a lot of people can’t afford a saxophone. And put up with me all those years of terrible honks and squeaks. I’m really appreciative of her. That’s why I take her to the clubs and concerts. She was at the club Saturday night. She only stayed one set. I should’ve introduced you to her. Her name is Elizabeth.
AY: And your father?
CM: He’s still around; he’s 78 and just left Arkansas. He’s in Wichita, Kansas now. He’s got a whole new family. I respect my father, but my mom is my love, a very warm mother. I got my music from her, I have to say. She can dance. I’ve had people her age come and tell me, “Boy, do you know your mama used to be the best dancer in Joplin, Missouri?” Men used to wait in line to dance with her. First of all, she could follow anybody. I don’t care what you do, as long as you were anywhere near cool. I mean, you could improvise, and she could follow you. She’d have these men jitterbugging, doing the Lindy, you know, all of those. My mom says she used to go out and dance on the corner for money.
She’s got what we used to call “quickening of the spirit.” She responds right away, emotionally, to whatever’s happening. She took piano lessons when she was a kid. But I think whatever little talent I might have comes from her.
And my wife and my family now have acted as a very stabilizing influence. When I first met Lynn, I didn’t like her. I used to drink coffee at this restaurant, and I didn’t like to be at her station because she was rude. I thought maybe it was because I used to didn’t buy any food. And then one day she told me, “You know. I’m Paul Sundfor’s sister.” Well, I knew Paul; he was a fine alto player here in town.
We’ve been married since ’86 — eight years, right? We courted four or five years before we got married. She’s a cutie.
This could be said, too — not to put America down too hard. There are a very small group of people in America who love jazz. And, for them, I want it said that my hat is off to those people.
For information about available recordings, you may write Charles McPherson at: CHAZZ JAZZ 7568 Draper Avenue, La Jolla, CA 92037. Or call (619) 459-8158.
Al Young is author of the novels Snakes, Who Is Angelina?, Sitting Pretty, Ask Me Now, and Seduction By Light. Among his poetry titles are Dancing, Geography of the New Past, and Heaven: Poems 1956-1990. His essays and memoirs about music are collected in Bodies & Soul, Kinds of Blue, Things Ain’t What They Used to Be, and, written with Janet Coleman, Mingus/Mingus: Two Memoirs. As a screenwriter, Young has written scripts for Sidney Poitier, Bill Cosby, and Richard Pryor. Recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the NEA, Fulbright, and Guggenheim fellowships. Young’s collection of musical memoirs. Drowning in the Sea of Love, will be published by Ecco Press in early 1995.